Benitez exit sparks protests

ANGRY Liverpool fans burned American flags outside Anfield last night in protests against the club’s US owners following the departure of manager Rafael Benitez.

Benitez (right) ended his six-year reign on Merseyside by accepting a £6m pay-off to terminate a £4m-a-year contract that still had four years left to run.

The Spaniard’s departure comes after a dire season in which the Reds finished seventh in the Premier League and suffered early exits from the Champions League and FA Cup. But there is a feeling that what was effectively a sacking was also motivated by a desire to cut costs, with the club £350m in debt and seeking a buyer.

Benitez remained a hugely popular figure among fans, despite deteriorating results and a mixed record in the transfer market. And hundreds of supporters showed their allegiance to Benitez yesterday by assembling outside the stadium and directing their anger at joint owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

They also targeted managing director Christian Purslow, who, along with former boss Kenny Dalglish, has been aksed to find a replacement.

Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill was the favourite to succeed Benitez last night, with Dalglish and Fulham’s Roy Hodgson also fancied.

In a statement that emphasised his close bond with the Reds faithful, Benitez, who looks bound for Inter Milan, said he was “very sad” to leave.

“I’ll always keep in my heart the good times I’ve had here, the strong and loyal support of the fans in the tough times and the love from Liverpool,” he said. “Thank you so much once more and always remember: You’ll never walk alone.”

Reds chairman Martin Broughton added: “Rafa will forever be part of Liverpool folklore but after a disappointing season both parties felt a fresh start would be best for all.”